Tullow has drilled seven successful wells in Kenya and estimates that there are more than a billion barrels of recoverable oil under the Turkana region’s dusty desert. Tullow says its discoveries have already put Kenya “at the heart of East Africa’s emerging oil province” and offer an opportunity for significant development in a poor region. But whether or not this development will materialise still depends on a degree of peace being maintained – something that is proving to be a very delicate balancing act.
Kenya’s oil boom has ratcheted up tensions in the region – rapidly increasing migration and economic problems, pushing up land prices and exacerbating tribal boundary disputes. In the wake of the riot, Tullow attempted to pacify Turkana’s angry tribes by increasing the number of local workers it employs, opening three community liaison offices and signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the state where it agreed to double spending on development programmes to €2.9m in return for more government security.
Since then there have been no major disruptions to operations – and Tullow says the security situation is under control.
Civil society groups that represent local people and regional politicians agree that the situation has improved – but also warn that it remains in a delicate transitional phase and could well be consumed by a Nigeria-style situation, with disenfranchised communities fighting oil companies, if the government doesn’t move quickly to ensure mineral wealth is distributed fairly.
“Tullow is a fast learner but the extra development spending won’t be enough to ensure regional stability by itself,” says David Ekwee, Kenya’s speaker of the Senate and a former member of parliament for the region.
“If ongoing issues surrounding revenue sharing aren’t resolved properly, the consequences will be dire. If the tribes feel hard done by, or cheated out of their land, there will be trouble.”
An influx of workers from outside the region was one of the key issues angering locals in oil-producing areas.
Tullow has responded with an impressive commitment to hiring local people and says that even before the incident, the company employed over a thousand local Turkana people.
But – in a twist that illustrates the difficulties in maintaining peace amid such change – this commitment to hiring local staff is also creating its own destabilising effects.
Tullow has attempted to hire the majority of its community liaison officers from the local area and due to the limited pool of workers, many of these new hires have limited experience in corporate communications. This has added to anger in some communities and accusations that requests for information and complaints have been ineffectively dealt with. In a region with a high illiteracy rate, Tullow’s commitment to local hiring has also stripped some towns of literate workers – moving them into work camps and leaving behind disgruntled young men who are undereducated and unemployed.